Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

On Traditional Tropes

Starring Millie Bobby Brown, the grand new fantasy film immediately sets the tone in its opening scene by defying the traditional chivalric tale; a brave knight saves a damsel in distress. Instead, it tells the viewer that the story will not be like other stories. We are told there will be a damsel in distress. However, she would not stand by and wait for help to arrive; instead, she will decide how to handle her own destiny.

Challenging old ideas about fairy tales and their predictions of fate is not revolutionary. With smug smiles and tired smiles, many directors try to fake clichés as if they were creating completely new ones. Although Netflix’s Damsel is somewhat similar to Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, Andy Tennant’s Ever After, and Tommy O’Haver’s Ella Enchanted, the film doesn’t rely on the audience being surprised by the storyline to live up to expectations. Instead, it maintains a fast tempo; it avoids any sense of excessive self-satisfaction in its attempts to modernize the genre.

Familiar Territory

Actually, there are not many surprises in the story; it could be improved if Dan Mazeau’s scenario included more uncertainty. However, there is an underlying yet satisfying twist in seeing the underdog triumph over misfortune, driven by an ancient need for revenge. For Elodie (Netflix’s female lead), her journey begins amidst all kinds of chaos. Under the direction of her father, Lord Bayford, and her stepmother, Lady Bayford, her family faces financial difficulties similar to those faced by her nation—hoping for a supernatural solution. The intervention takes the form of a marriage proposal, with Prince Henry—a charming prince from a distant land, pursuing his marriage with the help of Queen Isabelle—an indomitable queen. But what at first seems like a happily ever after eventually turns into a nightmare, as the wedding is actually a setup for an old custom condemning her to be sacrificed to a dragon in a vast abyss. When a love story turns to terror, Elodie is forced to fight her way back to safety.

The story develops into a twelve-year-old adaptation of a traditional tale of revenge against the odds; it offers a new viewpoint on a subgenre already studied extensively. At first glance, it seems a little odd to watch a young woman go through the physically arduous process of becoming an action hero. In contrast to other films following the cliche of a bride realizing that marriage is a sacrifice, such as Garry Marshall’s Runaway Bride, Damsel is much more successful; it avoids the overbearing tone of the bride in favor of genuine entertainment.

Life in Dire Circumstances

After a brief prologue showing the knights facing a fire-breathing dragon, the story continues “centuries later in a faraway land,” where we find Elodie hard at work chopping wood. Beside her lives a beloved younger sister, Floria, living in a remote, snow-covered town in terrible conditions. Their fate seemed hopeless, they had to sell their castle curtains to make ends meet. But then a glimmer of hope appeared in the form of a messenger carrying a letter stamped with the royal seal. Elodie receives an invitation from the queen to marry her son, the prince, along with a large dowry accompanied by a promise to bring prosperity back to their homeland. Elodie decides to carry out the suggestion despite initially being hesitant in trying to support her people. Elodie has her doubts, although Lord Bayford tries to present the possibility in a positive perspective.

Elodie and Floria were delighted with the warmth, richness, and splendor of their surroundings when they arrived at the queen’s luxurious home and were inspired by the kind welcome they received. Prince Henry has all the charm of a prince from a fairy tale, and his mother, despite her regal tendencies, is distant and coldly dismissive of Lady Bayford’s attempts at friendship. Despite Lady Bayford’s increasing concern, the wedding takes place with all the pomp and ceremony expected of a dream royal celebration. Stunning costumes by Amanda Monk and impeccable production design by Patrick Tatopoulos enhance the overall visual appeal.

Noteworthy are the moments during Elodie’s preparations for her wedding attire; it deviates from the conventional trope of transformation from tomboy to beauty, hinting at a deeper significance yet to be revealed in the narrative.

The Sacrificial Twist

After the wedding, a strange ritual takes place next to the cave entrance, with courtiers wearing masks and everything happening in dark mystery. With knife in hand, Isabelle began a custom where she slashed the palms of the newlyweds to mix their blood. It becomes clear Elodie will be sacrificed to appease the cave-dwelling dragon—a fundamental component of a long-term pact intended to keep the monster from destroying the world.

As a result, the story suddenly changes from a story similar to The Little Mermaid into an exciting John Wick style adventure taking place in a cave. Elodie fighting the dragon is terrifying, narrated by Shohreh Aghdashloo. Remember the dress from before? Elodie cleverly turns it into a survival pack. She used a corset busk, a stiff board from a corset, and carefully sharpened it against the cave wall to make a makeshift knife. Elodie skillfully moved, using scraps of cloth to protect herself and increasing her mobility by making it attractively tattered.

Elodie finds supplies in the depths of a dark cave among the corpses of the other princesses, their names scrawled on the walls as a reminder of their futile attempts to escape. She finds a glow worm in the shadows, providing a ray of light to guide her.

Directorial Vision

Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, a Spanish genre director has been absent from Hollywood for some time (partly due to the lukewarm reception to his horror film Intruders), Damsel emerges as a charming adventure full of simple but satisfying pleasures. Throughout the film, we witness Elodie’s journey of self-discovery, where she learns to value her ingenuity and independence above the allure of royal romance. Fresnadillo infuses her narrative with subtle feminist touches, depicting the queen as a tough leader, Elodie’s stepmother as an authority figure in the family, and even featuring a female dragon reigning in the cave.

Such an approach provides ample opportunity for three experienced female actors to shine in the film’s wide scope. Robin Wright gives a very chilling performance, though could have benefited from more vicious lines, while Oscar nominee Aghdashloo lends her voice to the dragon role with a particularly sinister appeal. Brown, like many child actors, placed too much emphasis on his dialogue delivery and emotional expressions. Although the character fits her previous role in Enola Holmes, the character feels too self-conscious and contrived, especially as she matures. However, it’s in the action moments that Brown really takes on her role.

Despite its occasional reliance on AI-enhanced landscapes, Damsel manages to avoid the visual cues often making Netflix productions mere mockbusters rather than genuine blockbusters. The film offers an immersive world, although it feels a little under-explored. The dragons are rendered with impressive flair and fluidity, going beyond the stiff CGI creatures typical of similar films. Although the atmosphere of the dank cave seems monotonous, and certain storylines towards the end feel a bit predictable, the film is thankfully well lit, ensuring that the audience remains engaged throughout the story.

The Video Game-Like Structure

In the film, the story progresses like a video game, with Elodie facing obstacle after obstacle presenting new challenges. Even though there has been progress, it is still not enough. For most of the film, Brown is the center of attention, alternating between expressions of fear and determination. As more characters enter the tunnel and uncover horrifying discoveries increasing the stakes, the tension rises.

It’s a shame the experience wasn’t shown on a larger screen, as the highly detailed locations filled with interesting details help offset the screenplay’s shortcomings. However, even on a smaller scale, the film is worth discussing because of the novel, classic female-centered story and moving ending emphasizing the strength of sisters. Damsel may not be able to completely rewrite the storybook, but it does a good job of reinterpreting it. It’s moving revenge story provides comfort for older viewers tired of gender clichés and a subtly empowering message for younger female viewers. In the meantime, the sweetness is slightly balanced with a hint of salt, enhancing the overall flavor profile.

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